China's ASAT Test: Implications for India
Chair: Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee, Director, IPCS
Speaker: Wg Cdr Ajay Lele, Research Fellow, IDSA
On 11 January 2007, China destroyed an ageing weather satellite of its own weighing 750kg and orbiting at 850km above the earth. The anti-satellite weapon was a non-explosive "kinetic kill vehicle," which destroyed its target by colliding with it. China's ASAT test is not the first attempt of its kind; there were three unsuccessful attempts earlier but, in the January test, China used a projectile as a weapon. The test is significant for space defence and disarmament but also for China's foreign policy and future conflicts in which space might play a crucial role.
China's space activities are apparent from its White Paper released in 2006 wherein Beijing declared that it would utilize outer space only for peaceful purposes. However, over the last three to five years, reports indicate that China has been steadily investing in satellite weapons like the parasitic satellite, which is essentially a nano-satellite, placed in the outer atmosphere and ignited to destroy an enemy satellite. This satellite can be operated by attaching it to the enemy satellite and then sending signals from the ground to eliminate the latter. China is also reported to have made a breakthrough with navigation satellite jammers that are equipped to disrupt GPS.
According to a report in September 2006, the Chinese secretly fired a powerful laser weapon to disable the keyhole series of American spy satellites by "blinding" their sensitive surveillance devices and preventing spy photography when they pass over China. In spite of China's attempt to disable the US satellites, the Bush administration did not condemn this action fearing that it would jeopardize its attempts to co-opt China into its diplomatic offensives against North Korea and Iran. China has exercised this capability against the US satellites on several occasions in recent years. The aim, however, has not been to destroy American satellites. Nevertheless, the American military has become so alarmed by the Chinese activity that it has made test attacks against its own satellites to determine the severity of this threat.
A significant consequence of the anti-satellite test is that of space debris. Since there is no gravitational force at this altitude whatever is fragmented remains there. Space junk is likely to serious affect other satellites that are already orbiting in space or are launched in the future. After the test, a series of mathematical models based on the rate of impact,
the place where the impact took place, and the mass impacted concluded that there are nearly 800 debris fragments of size 10 centimeters or larger were created
there are nearly 40,000 debris fragments of a size between one and 10 centimeters
there are some two million fragments of a size of one millimeter or larger are in space
These are initial figures. Scientists have started monitoring the region more carefully.Most satellites do not carry sufficient shielding for even tiny particles and in any case shielding is ineffective against any debris larger than one cm. This can create a major problem for satellites orbiting in space. This region is very commonly used by civil and military satellites, which are threatened by the added debris. The International Space Station might also encounter problems because of debris. These problems are not theoretical assumptions either. For example, in June 1983, the windscreen of the US space shuttle, Challenger, had to be replaced after it was chipped by a fleck of paint measuring 0.3mm and in 1996, a French spy satellite, Cerise, was struck by a wheeling fragment left from an exploded Ariane rocket. In lower earth obit debris can take a decade or longer before eventually burning up on contact with the Earth's atmosphere.
The ASAT test conducted by China indicates that space weaponization is going to be a prominent problem in the present era. The Chinese wish to have an orbiting network of strike weapons that will be concealed and launched in a crisis or emergency to bring the opponent down to its knees.
The recent history of war shows that the US had an asymmetrical advantage in satellite technology in Gulf War I, the Afghan crisis and Gulf War II. The opponents had no information from satellites. China believes that, in the event of a conflict with the US over Taiwan, the US will have superiority with US spy satellites keeping vigilance over the Taiwan Straits. If these could be destroyed, then coordinating any defence against a possible Chinese invasion would be virtually impossible. If US space assets are compared with China, the ratio stands as 100: 1. China is thus aware that it can never match the US in terms of numbers and technology, and the best option is to develop asymmetrical advantages. One way of achieving this is weaponization of space a policy triggered also by the recalcitrant space policy adopted by the US, which has consistently rejected any proposals to ban space weapons or to enter into negotiations on space weaponry.
There are laws that prohibit countries from sending weapons into space and an informal international understanding to avoid polluting space with the debris of exploded satellites. There is a treaty regime also to regulate space activities comprising the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1979. In addition, Russia and China have always advocated a reliable space regime, but the US has not supported this proposal. The UN bodies have also tried to regulate space activities through various treaties. In 1959, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was formed. The Conference on Disarmament has also been striving for the same though it has not been able to agree on the formation of an ad hoc committee with a mandate for outer space since 1994. There is also the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), proposal on the UN agenda since 1982, but nothing much has happened.
What is the Hitch?
It is very difficult to define a space weapon. Almost anything can be used as a weapon. There is also the complex nature of verification in outer space that involves technical and financial constraints. Some advocate a 'code-of-conduct' approach which is feasible when mutual interests are defined. There also needs to be a mechanism to confer authority on the UN bodies to punish infractions.
There are market concerns as well, surrounding space weapons. Military activities in space can have a significant and immediate impact on the commercial satellite market, which is growing presently at an exponential rate. Currently, there are about 175-200 low earth orbit (LEO) commercial satellites in operation with a market investment of about US$120 billion. Hence, tests like the ASAT, increase the financial risks of any satellite programme. The fallout would be felt by the insurance companies whose main concern so far was associated with natural calamities or technological failures. However, the present state of affairs brings a third factor into consideration. If a particular country has strained relations with another county, then its satellites could be attacked. This can lead to decreased investor confidence and high insurance rates.
Why did China Conduct the Test?
China feels that certain sections of its space assets are vulnerable with reference being made to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia (1999) using Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), which are essentially munitions directed by a satellite. China has expressed concerns about the capability of space assets to harm their interests and tried to convince the Americans about the need to have global space laws, but have only received a cold response. The Chinese feel that the Americans are not trustworthy in the area of space activities and that that the four spy satellites launched by Japan post-1998 while overtly designed to tackle the DPRK threat, have a covert Chinese angle too. Japanese investments in military space technology also cannot be taken lightly by the Chinese in the light of current bilateral relations. China has indicated however, that its test was a defensive one and was only undertaken to check its technical capabilities.
The recent stock exchange crash shows that China has an impact on global economy. Hence, the ASAT test should not be used to isolate China. If the global community could accept the Indian bravado of going nuclear, then the same may happen to China after a few years; hence China is not reading too much into the American condemnation of their test. Further, China has pledged not to proliferate ASAT technology. China looks at the ASAT as 'deterrence' and will continue to adhere by its 'no first use' policy.
Implications for India
It is doubtful whether China will use its ASAT capability that can currently be used only to hit LEO satellites against India. Even though, the Indian IRS series falls in this zone they may not be a lucrative target since they are primarily concerned with agriculture. The satellites that can be future targets are the Cartosat and the Technology Experiment Satellite. China may utilize jamming technology and laser technology to jam India's satellites. Pakistan could also benefit from Chinese space technology and this has strategic implications for India. The ASAT test can be expected to pose a challenge to India's C4ISR architecture. India is also striving towards establishing its indigenous GPS network with its satellites placed in the MEO and LEO.
India needs to look at the military uses of space technologies and be prepared with its own jamming technologies should the need arise. India should also lobby for a disarmament agenda at the global level. India must also factor in the worst case scenario if China emerges as a "rogue space power".
The ASAT test has added to the already existing debris in the space. There is a huge zone over which this debris is spread. What are the technological solutions to handle this debris problem? One way to do this is to nudge these pieces of debris into LEO and then into the endo-atmosphere where they will burn out. This is a very expensive and complicated process and at present, no technological breakthrough has been achieved whereby the debris can be brought into LEO and then burnt up. The other way of containing the debris is to use a kinetic vehicle to make the larger pieces of debris becomes smaller. Both these methods are untried and much uncertainty is involved. The issue of debris proliferated by the Russians in the space during an anti-satellite test conducted by them also remains an issue of concern.
There is no appreciation of the seriousness of the debris problem in India nor are there any worthwhile international efforts to handle the existing problem of space debris. The problem becomes graver because of the enormous speed at which this debris can travel and cause serious damage to the sensitive parts of a satellite on collision. Unless, timely action is taken in this regard space debris will become a grave danger rendering space virtually inaccessible. There is a serious race going on among leading nations to get to the moon to establish their own observatories, which will address the problem of tackling debris and other ecological challenges in space.
Was the Chinese Leadership Aware of the ASAT test?
It has been claimed that there is an apparent disconnect between the political and military leadership. However, one view holds that the existing political system within China makes it virtually impossible to conduct a ASAT test without the political leadership being unaware of it. Indeed, the reality is probably that the Chinese leadership was aware of the ASAT test since this was the fourth test in the series. Another view is that while the Chinese political leadership was aware of the test, it was not quite well-informed of the long term ramifications of the anti-satellite test.
The US and the ASAT Test
There is an enormous gap in the capabilities of China and the US. The latter is far ahead of China in the arena of anti-satellite testing. Hence, there is no reason for the US to be unduly concerned about China's new feat. Since the Americans are not ready to negotiate any treaty in the area of anti-satellite testing, the ASAT test was probably a way by which China could force the US to come to the negotiating table and conclude a space regime treaty.
Arms Control Measures and Disarmament
The ASAT test affects the very fabric of verification regimes by threatening reconnaissance as well as National Technical Means verification. This would lead to a very dangerous situation where nuclear weapons states would go on hair trigger alert because of mutual suspicions. China is a signatory to both the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty. If Article 10 of the Outer Space Treaty is strengthened there can be some jurisdiction to address issues like the ASAT test. Technologically, however, it is not possible to conduct verification of all activities that are proceeding at present. Space weaponization is increasingly becoming a challenge for the comity of nations. With the US making no effort to implement any treaty to regulate space activities, matters are assuming alarming proportions. Disarmament is thus the only viable solution to tackle the weaponization of space
As compared to other countries, the money required by India and China to launch satellites into the space is minimal at about one-fifth of the cost of western launches. China is looking at the space market with a very clear agenda and thus would probably not like to jeopardize its own chances. While none of the insurance companies have hiked their premium rates yet, it is possible that China did not factor in the possible commercial fallout in the insurance market.